Am Bratach No. 218
December 2009


Catriona MacLeod talks to Lily Byron, Rosehall

Murdo Mackenzie trained as a blacksmith in Tain where he married and had one child. Then, in 1881, he moved to take up a post as estate blacksmith at Rosehall where the remaining thirteen children were born in an estate house where his granddaughter, Lily, now lives. “I was actually born in Ardgay, at a place called Cornhill, and my father was Kenny Mackenzie...when we came back up here, all these old people were saying, “Oh, you’re Kenny’s lassie — what times we had with Kenny”. He was a great storyteller, a terrific laugh”. Kenny had trained at Loch Broom tweed mills as a tailor and a lot of his work entailed making clothes for the gentry. He didn’t have time to work the croft that had come with his wife, Frances Fraser’s, family home, a house which was part of the Balnagowan estate.

“We were evicted! At that time there was the four children, mother and father, Grandfather Fraser and a mad old cousin of my granny’s who had come to live with us, Aunt Jessie — who was doolally but just wonderful and used to talk to the ‘wild things’. But Lady Ross decided that if he wouldn’t work the croft he was out on his ear. This morning the factor came to give us our final notice and it just happened to coincide with Aunt Jessie throwing water out the window onto the wild fellows! My father couldn’t persuade the factor that it wasn’t intentional.”

The family eventually found a home in the old school in Ardgay, a brown building with only three rooms and a chimney that smoked — “it was horrible, but many’s a good ceilidh there was there. Our house was a house of music; my mother played the piano, my brother the piano accordion and my grandfather had a melodeon and a concertina, although he left to live with my aunties after we were evicted.”

Sadly, Lily’s mother, Frances, suffered from heart trouble and died when Lily was twelve and just starting high school at Tain. “She died suddenly, and I wasn’t even there. I used to get lent out to spend the night with lonely old people! There was a couple living up the hill from us, the husband was in hospital and Sadie was terrified to be on her own. I don’t know if I volunteered or was I volunteered, but I was there the night my mother died. So it was a bit of a shock when I came down in the morning.”

Lily was lucky that she had a good group of friends going through Tain Acadamy, and also the café in Ardgay had opened — teenage life in Ardgay was becoming quite cosmopolitan, “You could go to the picture house in Tain, get chips, the late bus home, then go to the café — expresso, a jukebox and open until 2am — it was a great life!” Lily worked at the café during school holidays and returned there every holiday from university in Edinburgh, where she was doing an arts degree.

Eventually she realised a lot of her peers were being more adventurous in their summers off, so herself and a friend went to work at Hellingly mental hospital in Sussex. Lily was there for three months and returned the next summer. “When you are young you don’t think anything is going to make a great impression on you — that it’s going to affect your life, but it really did. It was a wee bit of a shock at first. I felt like crying the first few days, poor souls. But then I discovered that — well, I got on with them!

“You don’t know what depression is until you see people that are just frozen with it and can’t even speak. They were giving them electric shock treatment then; it was just incredible. I had to stay with them afterwards until they came round — with a crushing headache — but the next day they would be sitting up smiling. It was like a miracle. The ones who had shock treatment were the ones who seemed to get better and go home. But I was young and ignorant — we just had to accept what was.

They were trying out LSD on people too, I had to sit with this woman and write down what she said — the hope was that they would talk. But it didn’t seem to work. I think it was because they were living in Sussex, that’s what was wrong with them! There wasn’t a community life, they didn’t know their neighbours. We used to say, ‘What’s on, it’s Friday? They would say, ‘What do you mean?”

Life back in Edinburgh was far from unsociable. At university, Lily had met, and married, Charlie Byron, a silk screen printer. “I spotted this crazy guy leaping about and dancing at a party one night and wondered who he was.” The next day he appeared at her flat — he was the flatmate of her flatmate’s boyfriend. “I went out with him every day after that.” They’d actually both moved in similar circles, and were involved with the young student Scottish nationalists, although Lily concedes she was in it for more social reasons than Charlie. Soon after leaving university, Lily had her daughter, Kathleen, but determined to carry on with her qualifications, did a post-graduate diploma in primary teaching at Moray House College. After her son Dougie was born, she worked temporarily with mentally handicapped children in a special school and then was offered a full-time post there. “I loved it there but still felt all the time I was in a city. I was there because I had to be and I always missed the country. You sort of felt the green spaces were ‘pretend’ in the city.

“We were visiting the last uncle here in Rosehall, Angie, when he died on us! He was in great form and sent Charlie to Achness [Hotel] for a half-bottle. The kids were there with us, we helped him lay the table, then he stood up to wish us all the best and just fell down! It’s a grand way to die! This, in a way, is how we ended up here.
“When I got back to Edinburgh, Charlie had a wee surprise for me — an uncle of his had died sometime before and left us some money. It wasn’t a lot but we were able to buy the old house. It was madness; we gave up our jobs and just came. It was great for me, but a bit of a culture shock for Charlie, but he loved it.”

After a couple of years working with the special-needs class in the Tordale Annex at Bonar Bridge Primary, Lily took up post as infant teacher at Rosehall. Then, after two years, she became head. “It was a shock! I thought, Me? I couldn’t be head teacher! I remember Heckie Stewart saying, ‘You’ll have to smarten up your act and get a new hat if you are going to be head teacher!’ Fifteen years down the line, and it turned out that Lily could, indeed, be a very able head teacher. However, eventually the bureaucracy and paperwork was starting to take its toll, and Charlie was suffering badly from rheumatoid arthritis.

“The work was taking over my life and his. The job was becoming more and more administrative and I didn’t want that”. Lily decided to take early retirement, but discovered that the supposed free time still didn’t materialise! Voluntary work substituted paid work, with involvement in the local hall committee, local history society, local SNP branch, lunch club, Lairg Gaelic choir, attending Gaelic courses, working as community arts promoter and — most recently — a creative writing course, in between jaunts to Edinburgh to visit family and satisfy Charlie’s need for the city. “People say, ‘You are so lucky in Rosehall; you have all that stuff.’ We are lucky — we’ve got a good group of people, and I had super kids and brilliant parents. But people have to do it — it doesn’t just happen.”

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